Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Franken insists he isn't running for president in 2020, but he might want to reconsider. Julian Zelizer says he would bring the Democrats a lot of advantages.
Sen. Al Franken insists he is not going to run for president in 2020, but he might want to reconsider. Democrats are already starting to consider who their next crop of candidates might be following the devastating results in November. There is buzz that former Vice President Joe Biden, who just formed a PAC to assist Democrats, is considering whether to run.
Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian and best-selling author, is no political joke. He comes to the table with substantial political experience, certainly compared to President Donald Trump. When reporter Bill Scher floated Franken in Politico as a possibility to be Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, many readers were intrigued by the idea but they wondered – could a former comedian and Deadhead who partook in the 1970s “Saturday Night Live” party scene really be viable as a national candidate?
The answer is yes. As Franken travels around the country to promote his new book about life in the Senate, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” Americans are getting a closer look at him. What are some of the qualities that make the Minnesota Democrat a viable candidate?
Unlike many of his colleagues, Franken is a tough partisan. Facing a Republican Party that hits hard and often beneath the belt, Franken has shown repeatedly that he is willing to punch back. This is a necessity in contemporary politics that too many Democrats have shied away from.
Democrats have been part of a perpetual quest to achieve civility and temper partisan passions even when the Republicans move further to the right, becoming more aggressive and more confrontational in their willingness to tear down opponents. If the Democrats are going to be competitive, they need a candidate like Franken who is willing to be explicit and direct about his political feelings.
He gets the GOP’s nature
Franken understands what much of the modern Republican Party is made of. Before running for the Senate, he published a blistering book about the right-wing media and its connections to the Republican Party entitled “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
Published in 2003, the book got to the heart of contemporary conservatism before many other observers were willing to acknowledge the ways in which the party was changing. “The members of the right-wing media are not interested in conveying the truth,” he wrote. “They are an indispensable component of the right-wing machine that has taken over the country … We have to fight back. We have to expose those who bear false witness for the false witness bearers that they are.”
His willingness to directly challenge powerful Republicans has been clear in the way he’s been talking about Sen. Ted Cruz during his book tour. The book contains a chapter all about Cruz and the problems he causes in the Senate. During one interview on CNN, Cruz came up as a subject in the discussion. “I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz,” he said, “and I hate Ted Cruz.” Franken half-jokingly described his fellow senator as the “toxic guy in an office, the guy who microwaves fish.” On a more serious note, he said, “Ted doesn’t get anything done. His big accomplishment was shutting down the government.”
He doesn’t confuse personal bipartisan civility, of which he is capable, with the need to agree or even try to agree on policy – something that will offer welcome relief to critics of President Obama who believe that he disastrously bent over backward to compromise with Republicans who would never say yes.
The Sessions blankie
Writing about former Sen. Jeff Sessions, whose wife knit Franken’s grandson a blanket, he is firm about the danger Sessions presents to civil rights in his new job as attorney general. “It’s hard to unfairly demonize someone whose wife knit your grandson his favorite blankie. Which is why when my job meant doing everything in my power to deny my friend this important position, I was relieved that there was so much to fairly demonize him for.” Now he is at the forefront of the Russia investigation, accusing Sessions of having committed perjury.
Explaining his feelings about President Trump, Franken does not hold back. He writes: “Watching Donald J. Trump take the oath of office to become the 45th President of the United States was perhaps the most depressing moment I’ve had since I entered politics, although that record has been repeatedly suppressed since January 20.”
Democrats also need a candidate like Sen. Franken who can handle the art of political combat within the new frenetic cable and Internet media environment. These are not easy mediums to handle, as so many politicians have learned. Successful politicians need a great feel for the way that the 24-hour news cycle works and how to respond – as well as to shape – the narratives that take form and are remade in our era of breaking news. They need to be comfortable in the sometimes silly and unreal conversation that can take place in print and on the airwaves.
Like it or not, this is the media landscape that we have. Franken is comfortable playing in this sandbox. His skills as a comedian and an entertainer would come in handy in a presidential campaign, and in governing, as they have during his time in the Senate. Comedians are not just funny but they are brutally honest about themselves, a characteristic that voters seem to be yearning for. You don’t have to be perfect as a person, but much of the electorate does want someone who’s real.
Franken, a Harvard graduate, is no lightweight. He is not just one more entertainer who wants to make his way into the world of politics (aka the Rock). His service in the Senate will distinguish him from many other candidates who are not quite inside the party establishment.
An outsider on the inside
Franken is an outsider who is on the inside. Elected in 2008, he represents a major state in the heartland. During his time in the Senate he has proven his ability to be a tough interrogator, taking the legislative oversight function seriously, and he pushed a number of important bills, such as legislation in his first year mandating how health insurance premiums should be spent.
To be sure, he doesn’t have a huge record of sponsored bills that were passed, but this is not a surprise, given that Republicans have controlled the chamber for much of his time in office and we have had very unproductive congressional sessions as a whole.
Franken is an old-fashioned economic liberal with socially progressive sensibilities. As he writes in his new book, “Democrats aren’t just the party of equality for all – we’re the party of opportunity for all. We’re the ones who want to give people the boots. We’re the ones who stand for the middle class and for those aspiring to it – not just because it’s the fair thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do.”
The senator has won elections in the kind of state Democrats need to pay closer attention to: Minnesota. Franken has done well with Midwestern heartland voters who used to be the heart of the Democratic coalition. As the Democrats have focused their energy on the coasts, they’ve lost touch with too many white middle class and working class voters who are struggling in these regions. Franken has proven that he can win here, appealing to them with economic issues rather than crass conservative populism that plays to their anger. In his 2014 bid for re-election, Sen. Franken won the support of non-college educated voters by eight points.
Appealing to the Midwest and the coasts
His personal story offers Democrats a mix of a politician who can appeal to the coastal political sensibilities and working class voters in the heartland. Franken is the grandchild of immigrants, he was educated in the Ivy League, and he is a Midwestern liberal. Bringing varied elements of the party together and building on the demographic advantages that are forming for Democrats, a Franken campaign could pose a threat to the GOP. Franken would be the first Jewish American president if elected.
Although there are skeptics who wonder whether this admitted former cocaine user and partier can win. But it does seem that Trump’s victory has changed the rules of the game. Trump’s own background in the nightclubs of New York and his scandalous personal record with women didn’t stop him.
To be sure, Franken still needs to be tested. We don’t how he would handle the media spotlight when it intensifies dramatically and how opponents would assail aspects of his biography.
But there is a lot for Democrats to like in this funny man turned politician. The party should take a close look at this senator to see if there is someone fresher and with new perspectives who might be a perfect fit to run in the era of Trump. Sen. Franken, whose party is “tired and broken,” to quote the Grateful Dead, might very well need him to take this leap.